“Social realism, what the fuck is social realism?” Paddy Considine, Director of Tyrannosaur (Little White Lies- Oct 2011)
The ‘social’ came from ‘socialist’. When the soon to be directors of the British New Wave (Karel Reisz- Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Lindsay Anderson- This Sporting Life, Tony Richardson- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) were making documentaries as part of the ‘Free Cinema’ Movement, they wanted to produce films and documentaries about the under-represented working class that had a socialist message. The ‘realism’ part of Considine’s question is trickier.
Realism is a loaded term, especially when we are talking about films depicting the British Working Class. Tyrannosaur is a sad film where relentlessly grim things happen to people it is often very difficult to like. Hannah, an abused wife befriends Joseph, a violent older man, as both struggle to survive in a lonely, brutal vision of modern day Britain. It is a film that tackles many difficult issues but the main question addressed in the mainstream media seems to have been; are we allowed to tell stories like this anymore? (‘Toilet bowl drama to titillate the chattering classes’ in the Daily Telegraph and ‘Is Tyrannosaur poverty porn?’ in the Observer). This unease over the representation of the disadvantaged of is an old one; similar charges were leveled against the upper-middle class New Wave directors in the sixties, accusing them of romanticizing the common man’s struggle. Andrew Higson famously criticized these early ‘social realist’ films, calling the view point to which they kept returning ‘That Long Shot of Our Town From That Hill’. This often poetic, outsider’s or ‘scholarship boy’s’ view was seen as the distorting ‘gaze of the bourgeoisie’ and therefore a form of misrepresentation.
Paddy Considine, however, is no such outsider; he grew up on a council estate in Burton on Trent and insists “I’m not a tourist here. I grew up in the world Joseph inhabits.” The film, he says, is about “making sense of…my own demons, my relationship with human beings, my relationship with God, my mother, my father…” Yet, despite this, Considine cannot speak of the issues he wishes to explore- the use and misuse of religion, the possible causes of mental illness and violence- without being accused of exploitation. It seems that to make a film about non-middle class Britain is still considered what Raymond Williams called ‘socially extended’; it is still a perspective on the outside of the norm and still lumbers anyone attempting it with a set of very complex constraints. There is something about the way we treat stories such as these that seems to deliberately avoid seeing what we are being shown.
Rather than speaking about what might cause a person to feel such rage that they have no response apart from kicking a dog to death, what might drive a woman to such destructive self-sacrifice or what might drive a man to enact his insecurities with such sadism, we speak of whether we should or shouldn’t be looking. We agonize over what it means about us if we sympathize, empathize, or condemn as if the only moral questions worth addressing were what such suffering says about us. Also while Considine’s background gives his story a sense of authenticity, this idea that one can only write about the ‘working class’ or poverty from personal experience brings its own problems. In his analysis of British social realist cinema (Sex, Class and Realism– 1986) John Hill argued that ‘social and political dimensions’ were suppressed through concentration on ‘private, personal dramas’ leading to ‘problems of the social structure’ being reduced to ‘problems of the individual.’
Our decisions about what we will accept as realistic are very revealing, betraying more often than not an ideological point of view. If as Hill argued, realism is nothing more than a set of ‘conventions which have successfully achieved the status of being accepted as realistic,’ Considine seems to be attempting to redescribe these conventions. Showing two damaged individuals who have found hope through one another is nothing new, but there is a new kind of pessimism in Tyrannosaur that is. There is no long shot out, in or from any hill beyond the world of Tyrannosaur– the only escape or mobility offered from this world seems to be a spell in prison.
Thomas Elsaesser describes an ‘a priori optimism located in the structure of narrative,’ (The Pathos of Failure, 1975) with the desire to create a satisfactory resolution too often resulting in a celebration of the very system being criticized. The society shown is inadvertently praised for its flexibility and ability to absorb difficulties as characters either adapt or are adapted to, in order to create an ending. By not letting anything that could be called society step in and help, Considine avoids this trap; the stress on the individual as the agent of causality, rather than blocking social and political dimensions, makes even clearer the failings of the system that has left him so abandoned. By keeping open the possibility that the characters have simply found a new place to continue playing out their cycles of dysfunction and by leaving it deliberately unclear whether either character will be capable of providing the support that the other needs he poses a problem that has no answer within the world as he knows it.
The skill of this film is that it makes us empathize with responses we like to feel are incomprehensible to us. While the absence of any benevolent higher power insists we find another word to replace the religious one, this reluctant identification forces us to feel something like ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ a secular version of which can only leave us with the word circumstances. Rather than circling around terrified in case we are caught out voyeuristically exoticising the Other, we need stories like this to make us to ask questions about how the society we live in contributes to the kind of desperation Considine depicts. Whatever we call it, this film is making us acknowledge something real and politically important by showing us something we already know; material and environmental circumstances affect the way people behave.
Carmel Doohan lives in London and supports her voracious film and theatre habit by answering the phones and tearing the tickets. She is a freelance arts journalist and reviews theatre for WhatsonStage.com and Exuent. More of her work can be found at carmelreviews.wordpress.com
Read Jacob Mertens’s review of Tyrannosaur here.